Brief overview and thoughts on Evans-Pritchard’s chapter ‘The Notion of Witchcraft explains Unfortunate Events’

Evans-Pritchard uses this chapter to explain how witchcraft provides the Azande with a natural philosophy. He pin points how it explains the relationships between men, but also how witchcraft beliefs regulate society and human conduct. The chapter uses examples throughout, such as the falling granary or cracking pots, to emphasise how witchcraft is constantly expected and plays a part in nearly all activities in Zande life.

Evans-Pritchard was not as quick to reject so called magical thinking as previous scholars like Edward Tylor who believed human evolution brought humans from ‘primitive’ ways of thought to advanced reason and scientific thinking. This book was one of the first that actually examined beliefs and ideas as an entire system of thinking. After discussing in the lecture last week how the belief/religious structure can often be similar to how the society is structured it is clearly important to examine a society as a whole system of thoughts.

One of the clear points that Evans-Pritchard makes in this chapter is that the Azande do not believe that misfortunes are due to mystical causations alone. Any failure or misfortune at any time may be due to witchcraft, but witchcraft only explains why events are harmful to man and not how they actually happen. For example it is known that in Zandeland the old granaries sometimes collapse due to termites eating away at its supports and sometimes on hot afternoons people sit underneath them during activities. However why on a particular day, when a particular person is sitting beneath does the granary collapse? This is the cause of witchcraft. Using multiple examples Evans-Pritchard emphasises how ‘Zande belief in witchcraft in no way contradicts empirical knowledge of cause and effect’ (1976, p25). Thus they recognise a plurality of causes as we do.

Evans-Pritchard makes an interesting comparison, by not placing the West and Azande into opposition, but by placing the two routes in thought next to each other. For Zande, the reason two particular things occur at precisely the same time and space is because of the action of witchcraft. In our view, we have no specific explanation, but many would put it to ‘bad luck’. Both these philosophies are ways of attempting to explain why misfortune has occurred and are culturally relevant.

I find it really interesting that Evans-Pritchard describes the Azande to have no conceptions of the ‘natural’ or ‘supernatural’ as we would understand it. Instead witchcraft is normal and completely ordinary. For different societies across the world there are reasons for misfortune from karma, bad luck, superstition, witchcraft and religion. This chapter and the entirety of the book made me question, what is rational thinking? I am going to end on an interesting quote from Evans-Pritchard that I feel this book really makes you question, ‘Is Zande belief so different from ours or that we could only describe their speech and actions without comprehending them or is it essentially like our own though expressed in an idiom to which we are unaccustomed?’

I also found an interesting documentary about Evans-Pritchard and the first half of the documentary discusses Witchcraft, Oracles and Magic among the Azande if anybody would like to hear a brief overview of his study.


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